The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 12, 2014

Children fall through our immigration system's cracks

June 12, 2014

The US immigration system is bad for kids. One of every five immigrant children in the United States has been separated from his or her mother (and a third from their father) for over a year.

Data show that foreign-born children spend, on average, 27 percent of their lives separated from their parents. And 28 percent of all immigrant children live in households headed by someone other than their parents.

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Unfortunately, this week’s Supreme Court decision does not help US immigrant families stay together. The ruling concerns what happens to children who turn 21 during their wait for visas, an excruciatingly long process that often takes five or six years.

The hitch is that children under age 21 whose visas are petitioned by their lawful permanent resident (LPR) parents, or children who could get a visa because an LPR or a US citizen requested a visa for their parents, may turn 21 while waiting in line.

If that occurs, they get shunted into the line for adult applicants, which has an even longer waiting period. And once children land at the back of the adult line, it doesn’t matter that they’ve been shuffling through the proper legal channels already, often for years.

Getting put into the adult line may even eliminate applicants from eligibility altogether, for instance if they are the nieces, nephews or grandchildren of LPRs or US citizens.

On Monday, the Supreme Court considered whether kids who had already been in the process legally could get special consideration– and decided against it. With this ruling, separation of children from their parents lasts longer, and children left behind may not have recourse to join their families in the United States. All this causes emotional distress for families, and makes the integration of children more difficult.

What’s ironic is that the US immigration system is actually based on family reunification. Nearly two-thirds of all immigrant visas are allocated to family members of US citizens and legal permanent residents. By comparison, only about 15 percent of visas are allocated to people with specific employable skills, and the remainder goes to refugees and other immigrants.

The problem is that the mandated, arbitrary cap of 226,000 family visas does not keep up with demand. In November 2013, there were 4.2 million individuals waiting for such visas, not including those already in the United States and trying to adjust their status.

The system has to give somewhere, and children fall through the cracks, moving them at age 21 to longer waiting lines without certainty if and when family reunification will take place.

Despite how hard it is to legally immigrate to the United States, millions of people still wish to do it every year. The further away we get from comprehensive immigration reform, the more immigrant children and families will bear the burden.

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